From the Back of the Drawer: Open Sesame


GEORGE OLIVER (this article was published in February 2013)

Each week, we rummage through the dark corners of our kitchen drawers to bring you an enigmatic item. We ask you to guess what it is in our weekly From the From the Back of the Drawer puzzle. To enter this week’s puzzle, visit this page. To read more descriptions of past items, visit this page. And, don’t forget to donate your odd items to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

This week, we found a Can Opener!

Cans of foods are so ubiquitous a part of our eating habits and pantries, that it’s hard to imagine a time when there weren’t such ways of preserving food. The tin canning process was first patented by Peter Durand of London in 1810, but the patent was sold soon after to two other Englishmen, Hall and Donkin, who produced the first canned foods for the British army in 1813. It’s commonly reported that the canning process was brought to the US in 1812 by Robert Ayars who established a canning factory in New York, but other sources date the introduction of canning to the William Underwood Company in Boston in 1821. (Microbiology of Thermally Preserved Foods by Tibor Deak)

Interestingly, however, can openers weren’t patented until the 1850s, decades after canned foods were in use. Part of the explanation is that the initial tinned wrought-iron cans were heavy and thick and too expensive for ordinary household use, but fine for the military and expedition parties. Once the metal used for cans became thinner and more flexible, and home use became more common, openers were a must. In 1858, Ezra Warner of Waterbury, Connecticut patented the first can opener in the US.

The first openers were very much like the mystery item for this week. It’s an antique lever-type can opener, a type that was popular through much of the last century, through the 1960s. The design of this antique opener is simple, elegant almost, but like all openers of its type, it requires some muscle to use with sawing motion, and the resulting round of metal top that is left can be dangerously ragged or sharp.

They still make can openers like this today in China, but no longer in the US. Most people use the wheel-type openers now. Some cans these days have pull tops, but the issue of a sharp-edged round of metal is still a problem. In the last 10 years a new type of opener that bypasses the metal top and cuts under the lid is the latest attempt to make openers easy and safe, but for simplicity these old muscle-operated openers are still useful.

Our Rating: Works very well for a basic pierce-type lever opener.

Design: Simple and elegant.

Originality: Similar to other lever openers of the time.

Practicality: All lever-type can openers require some muscle, and the metal round it cuts can be a hazard. But it’s still useful, and some might enjoy the small physical force it takes to open a can.

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